About 5 years ago I read almost everything Michael Pollan wrote. Including the strange book about building a “hut” on his Connecticut property, A Place of My Own. As well-written as it is, it pales in comparison to the books that made Pollan famous: The Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and his towering achievement, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Let’s just say that the guy had an effect on me.
Two lines from Omnivore rang in my head. The first, “Americans have become walking Fritos” is perfect. Read any label on any processed food product and you will not only find an obscene amount of sodium in it, you will find a corn product or derivative. Essentially, everything we eat is corn and salt. Fritos.
The line that sent a chill up my spine though, was “America is no longer growing it’s own food supply.” I began looking at food labels on the produce in stores, and was dismayed to see the amount that came from outside the U.S. In February, I can get eggplant grown in Canada, but none grown in this country. Note that 99.99% of Canada is north of the 48 States, with the exception of that little slip of Ontario that is south of Detroit. If Canadians can grow eggplant in February, we sure as hell can. Not that I’ve got anything against Canada, I love that country. It’s just that there is no reasonable argument for Americans buying eggplant from Canada. Mustard from France, I get. Bananas from Central America, I get. Eggplant from Canada, I just don’t get it. Armed with Pollan’s eloquent prose, I decided I would make some massive changes in what, and in how, I ate.
Good yuppie that I am, I joined the bandwagon of Food Rules, and made my own set. Within my Rules I would be as locavore as I could, with some notable exceptions. I did not give up French mustard or Italian wines and cheeses (and French wine while we are at it…), but for the most part I was willing to jump on the tour and support my local economy.
My Food Rules rested on two central ideas; first, I would start to eat as “clean” as possible. I love to cook, and the transition to buying only low-processed foods was a simple one for me. Some people set a limit to the number of ingredients included in the products they buy (no more than 5 ingredients, say), but I didn’t want to be that dogmatic about it. For example, the five-ingredient rule that some swear by would have knocked out my favorite local 7-grain bread. Giving up that for an arbitrary ingredient count seemed excessive. So I just said that any processed food I bought would be as simple as possible; free of preservatives and corn syrup, with as low a sodium count as possible. Let’s face it, you can’t make cheddar or parmigiano, let alone feta, without salt. That salt is ok. 880 milligrams of sodium per serving of canned soup is not.
This “clean” thing proved to be the easy rule. The only processed foods I keep in the house are things like mustard, olive oil, vinegar, yogurt, cheese, you get it. Basically, it’s any foodstuff that would be a huge drag to make at home. It’s easy to find preservative-free, and low- or no-sodium items in this category. You pay a little more, and you never really stock up, but it’s really worth it in flavor and quality.
With the exception of mustard, wines, vinegars and oils, and some cheeses, I found some great, local stuff to buy that I had been ignoring. A local hot sauce and salsa company. We have a few terrific bakeries. A local farm produces beautiful goat cheese. There are a couple of chocolatiers who make terrific sweets. I even buy my olive oil from a local importing firm, as opposed to the massive, multi-national chains. Buying clean, mostly local, processed foods turned out to be a breeze.
My second rule was a bit more complex: I would eat local produce whenever possible (in Cleveland, you have to bring in some flexibility, particularly January—March), slowly buying out in a geographic range. So, if my farmer’s market had it, I’d buy it there. If not, I would look for produce from Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York and New England. My food travel miles could expand all the way to California, so long as it was grown in the U.S.
I knew that some produce was going to be out for me. Bananas and kiwis were all grown outside of the U.S., and I was, essentially, giving them up. But that seemed a small price to pay to become a member of Pollan’s army of yuppie foodies.
The first change I noticed was I ate seasonally again. I had as a kid. My mother was a terrific cook who was slow to jump on the processed foods bandwagon, so this transition was not too hard for me. Everything tasted better, and I really enjoyed my first year of “Food Rules”, with the exception of the months of February and March. By then I was tired of the cauliflower, broccoli, winter squash and apple routine that sets in around mid-November. By my second year of this, I learned to buy extra raspberries and peaches and apricots, so I’d have a freezer full of them when the dark days of January rolled around. Also, in September I make extra ratatouille and other tomato-based vegetable stews to freeze alongside the berries and stone fruits. Tomatoes are just about the best way to survive February.
Don’t get me wrong. After a summer of zucchini and yellow squash and peas and leafy greens, the brightly colored cauliflowers and sweet winter squashes are such a treat. For the past 3 weeks, I’ve delighted in brussels sprouts, romanesco, and that vibrant, purple cauliflower one farm has been growing. But, man, does it wear off fast. And it’s just so nice to have some tomato during the dark, cold, sloppy days of February.
I thought I was emotionally prepared for what I was embarking on. I knew the chicken I would buy cost roughly twice that of the poor birds sold at most grocery stores (I’ve visited the farm where the chickens walk around. I’ve seen them. They walk. A rare thing for chickens in America). I knew I wasn’t going to be able to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted – and that seemed delicious somehow. Call me catholic and into sacrifice, or call me a girl and into diets. Going without has it’s own, unique benefits.
Except when it comes to limes. My favorite salmon recipe calls for a lime marinade. You can substitute lemons, but they do not give the dish the flavor I love. You need limes. And we have no more commercial lime orchards in America. American citrus farms have been moving to Mexico for some time now, along with avocados, garlic and onions. But you can still get those amazing Texas red grapefruits in January (and this also helps mitigate the vegetable shortage). Lemons still come from California. Onions and garlic are grown here, in Ohio. But limes? All of them in the store say “Mexico”. Unless they are from Peru. I went a year without eating a single lime, and then, on a trip to Portland, I thought, “Oh good! I’ll be on the West Coast. I can buy limes there!” I went to three different stores and all the limes came from Mexico. Later on, in San Francisco, I was heartbroken the moment I saw the same “Mexico” stickers on all of the limes.
Even key limes, you know the kind used in key lime pie? Even key limes are not grown in the Florida Keys, the place they were discovered. The place that they are named for. Key limes come from Mexico now. Shouldn’t there be some law, like the French have about champagne? That unless the grapes are grown in the champagne region of France, you can’t call it champagne? The grapes come from anywhere else, it’s just sparkling wine. Those “key limes” in the store are not key limes. They’re just tiny green things. They should be labeled as such.
No one talks about this. No one has reported on it. I did searches, trying to find out why we don’t grow limes in the U.S. any more. Nothing. All those orchards in Florida, California and Texas, all gone, and not one word on what happened. Finally, there was a mention of the limes on food&water watch. In their Global Grocer interactive, they point out that 100% of the commercial limes sold in America come from outside the country. They refer to Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 storm that did substantial damage to Florida agriculture. Apparently, lower-priced imported limes rushed into the vacuum that Andrew left us with, and American lime growers never were able to compete again…. After searching and searching and searching, this was the only scrap of information I could find about the limes.
How did we let this happen? And why hasn’t anybody noticed? We don’t grow limes commercially in the United States any more. Just let that sink in. And, according to the FDA, nearly 2/3 of the produce we consume domestically comes from outside the U.S. Nearly 2/3. We’re not growing our own food supply. We live on one of the most agriculturally diverse and rich swaths of land in the world and we’re not growing our own food on it. We’re building mcmansions and ugly, empty shopping centers, and we’re not growing food. Mexico and Canada and Central America are growing our food supply.
Think about that the next time you hear Charles Krauthhammer calling for more reinforced walls built between Mexico and the U.S. Think about that the next time you hear an interview with a farmer who has moved his operation to Mexico. Think about this the next time Michelle Bachman goes on another tirade about homeland security. First, we move our food supply out of the country, then we build a fence to ensure we keep it out. And she wants it expanded and reinforced. Great homeland security there, Michelle. Wall us off from our food supply. While we’re at it, let’s make America even more secure by giving the Koch brothers another tax cut, and let’s make America even more secure by ensuring women can’t get decent health care.
I digress, and none of this has anything to do with limes, so I guess I’m done here….
But it has something to do with limes. Somehow. Somehow it all matters and it’s all important and it’s all connected and it’s all very, very crazy. We don’t grow limes in America anymore. Just let it sink in.